Nine Tenths of the Law by Glenn H. Mitchell is a pulse-pounding noir novel that takes a serious turn for the dark. The center of this tale is Detective Ben Ricci, a fair mess of a police detective with a drug-addled past and drug-addled wife. Continuously under suspicion for his bad behavior, Ricci becomes embroiled in solving a horrifying crime in which a young man has been disemboweled with supernatural underpinnings – taking him to investigate an immortal mannequin, a family of witches, a book on the occult, and the murderous spirit of a dead child. Part crime fiction, part horror novel, Nine Tenths of the Law takes noir fiction to its darkest depths.
What makes any detective novel work – especially one that establishes a new series – is the strength of its protagonist. Ben Ricci veers towards being an unreliable narrator because he’s such a fantastic mess, but his faults are also what make him most endearing. You’re pulling for him even when he’s not behaving especially well. This is vital because when the horror starts, the reader needs some element of sympathy for Ricci or the novel will seem dark to a fault. The other characters are equally well drawn with each new character even creepier than the last.
What makes Nine Tenths really come alive its realism. Given that Ben’s a skeptic, his perspective gives a realistic weight to an outlandish story, in turn making the horror more realistic. Combining occult themes with his drug use makes Ricci an extremely interesting and multi-layered character. Already, he’s in conflict with himself, and adding some supernatural elements ups the ante of his internal conflict. Another important element adding to the realism is Mitchell’s familiarity with police and forensic procedures. Mitchell has really done his homework.
The weakness in Nine Tenths stems from its strength. Mitchell has created a series of riveting characters and a pulsing plot arc, but at times he seems so enamored with what he’s created that he doesn’t cut back. Page by page, there is too much extraneous information that doesn’t fully service the story. This is not to say that the book needs to be wholly plot driven, but there is a fair amount of superfluous information – in both dialog and description – that doesn’t really color in character or story, and mostly repeats what has already been described. This affects the book’s momentum overall.
The character of Ben Ricci saves this problem because he’s a vibrant and interesting character, and you want to read more about him, but the novel could have been a bit more streamlined. It’s the kind of book where you can see the author’s thought process at work: Mitchell clearly loves the world he’s created, so he’s loathe to leave anything out once it’s been written. Mitchell’s passion for the work comes through, but character and story could have been enhanced by cutting the narrative down.
All in all, Nine Tenths of the Law is an exciting and complex mystery for fans of either noir or supernatural horror. It can be difficult to marry genres together, but Mitchell is more than up to the task. Despite its flaws, it establishes a twisted new series with a captivating and multi-faceted protagonist.
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